A Savory Stew of New and Old

 [flag code=”us” size=”24″ text=”yes”] Aspen Music Festival (5): Soloists, Aspen Chamber Symphony and Festival Orchestra, Nicholas McGegan and James Gaffigan (conductors). 13.7.2014 (HS)

Chamber Symphony, July 11
Benedict Music Tent
Nicholas McGegan, conductor
Andrew Bain, horn
John Zirbel, horn
Kevin Rivard, horn
Alexander Kienle, horn
Daniel Hope, violin
Schumann: Concert Piece for Four Horns and Orchestra
Schnittke: Sonata No. 1 for Violin, Strings, and Harpsichord
Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 4 in A major, op. 90, “Italian”


Recital, July 12
Harris Concert Hall
Anne Akiko Meyers, violin
Anton Nel, piano
Mozart: Violin Sonata in F major, K. 377 (374e)
Someh Satoh: Sange (world premiere)
Ravel: Violin Sonata No. 2
Piazzolla: Milonga Del Angel
Piazzolla: Oblivion
Mason Bates: Suite for Solo Violin (world premiere)


Festival Orchestra, July 13
Benedict Music Tent
James Gaffigan, conductor
Yefim Bronfman, piano
Christopher Theofanidis: Rainbow Body
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor”
Dvorák : Symphony No. 9 in E minor, “From the New World”

Every year the Aspen Music Festival chooses a theme for its eight-week summer season of orchestral, chamber and vocal concerts. This year it’s “The New Romantics,” no doubt a response to the cold reception last season from longtime attendees and donors to some of Benjamin Britten’s thornier works. The topic does open the door to 20th- and 21st-century works composed in a more accessible style, alongside ripe and familiar music from the actual Romantic Era of the 19th century.

Each of this weekend’s major concerts offered enticing examples on both scores. Christopher Theofanidis’ Rainbow Body (2000), opened Sunday’s Festival Orchestra program with crowd-pleasing  splashes of rich musical color. World premieres of likeable works by Mason Bates and Somei Satoh were the highlights of a Saturday recital by violinist Anne Akiko Meyers and pianist Anton Nel. And the first half of the Aspen Chamber Symphony program Friday included a 1963 Schnittke rarity that makes 12-tone music sound downright folksy. It created a fine contrast with a splendid Schumann gem for four horns and orchestra from the peak of the Romantic era.

A 12th-century melody by Hildegard von Bingen served as the seed forTheofanidis’ piece, which stretches and develops the tune into a mesmerizing array of tonal textures and harmonic intricacy. It builds gradually into an ecstatic climax. The broad gestures and thundering finish are a long way from Bingen’s monophony, but the rousing shouts from the string players at the climax could stand in for a hallelujah or two. It’s easy to hear why this has become one of the most often-played contemporary works. This orchestral music on a grand scale held the audience for its 13 minutes.

The centerpiece of Sunday’s program was Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor,” certainly a pinnacle of the early years of the Romantic Era. Yefim Bronfman executed it with precision and an eye toward deftness, tossing off crystalline trills and rapid-fire runs with plenty of expression. Conductor James Gaffigan kept the pace moving quickly and the orchestra responded with playing that had guts and clarity.

Gaffigan seemed intent in whipping up as much excitement as possible in  the Dvorák  Symphony No. 9, from the opposite end of the Romantic era. It had some sharply defined sections, but they could have strung together more naturally. There were fine individual moments, especially a languid English horn solo played by Melissa Hooper (with a bit more urgency than most do) and impressive work by the horn section.

The world premieres Saturday night, both written for Meyers, could not have been more different. Satoh’s trance-like Sange hung strands of simple melody  motionless in the air, the piano and violin occasionally intertwining to introduce complexity. It created a pure, clean world for us to inhabit for its 10 minutes. Bates’ Suite for Solo Violin explored vernacular American tropes, including syncopated rhythms, harmonies and familiar-sounding melodic turns. In its three movements totaling 15 minutes, the energy never flagged and Meyers and Nel clearly were enjoying the vigorous interplay. Both pieces drew warm receptions.

The remainder of an eclectic program offered sonatas by Mozart and Ravel and a pair of tangos by Astor Piazzola, all with the intoxicating sonics of Meyers’ “Ex Vieuxtemps” Guarneri, a violin able to produce everything from wisps of sound to lusty power, as if amplified. Meyers and Nel played immaculately, but one could hope for more emotional intensity, especially in the Piazzola and Ravel works.

Nicholas McGegan brought his trademark enthusiasm and brio to bear on Friday’s Chamber Orchestra program. Schumann’s Concert Piece for Four Horns had the benefit of three principals in leading orchestras—John Zirbel (Montreal), Andrew Bain (Los Angeles) and Kevin Rivard (San Francisco Opera)—and they made a charismatic sound. None, including their student compatriot, Alexander Kienle, seemed to bobble a single note of the difficult and broad-beamed music.

Schnittke’s Sonata No. 1 for Violin, Strings, and Harpsichord was written as a sort of musical raspberry to Soviet apparatchiks. “Romantic” could describe the heroic boldness of defying the Soviets, and indeed it did result in Schittke’s arrest. Violinist Daniel Hope, who worked with Schnittke for several years before the composer’s death in 1998, brought an impressive range of tonal colors to the solo role while McGegan applied his ebullient  approach, infused with Baroque style, to the spiky score, relying on the lively rhythms to carry the thrust. Although the music had its harsh moments, the highly stylized folk songs in the third movement and the sharp wit of a finale built on “La Cucaracha” gave the audience something to latch onto.

McGegan established a breathless pace right from the start for Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony. The orchestra not only kept up but managed to articulate all the phrasing cleanly and with mercurial style.

Harvey Steiman

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